Vaxxers: A triumph of technology management

Reading Time 11 minutes

The story and lessons learned behind the Oxford vaccine development that saved countless lives and billions of dollars (and counting…)

I have to warn you, it’s a long article, but it’s well worth reading (if I do say so myself).

I was jolted from a sunny daze on my deck half listening to a podcast interview with Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green.

The words “A vaccine for the world” gave me tingles.

Their story is a fascinating one; the tale behind the development of the Oxford vaccine as a fightback against SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid.

It’s a big story.

And it is an innovation – a new offer of product that is valued by literally everyone on the planet.

But, as the creative mind hit me, it’s a story of the triumph of technology and innovation management.

To the general public, “technology and innovation management” is nowhere in their mind. To the professional company innovator, it might be.

Catherine and Sarah’s story emerged from a need to explain to communicate what they did not for personal gain, but from an encounter at a pizza van on a Snowdonian mountainside.

As technologists and innovators, we sometimes have to tell a better story.

We’re rarely faced – if ever – with the scale and urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic. But in companies and organisations, we can face some pretty big challenges for our innovation.

Our board may not think every day about technology or innovation, but when they do, they should have a high-quality conversation rather than be spurred by blind panic when the product launch goes wrong.

So, through this lens what lessons and inspiration can we draw from Catherine and Sarah’s experiences?

We could say something like innovation management researcher Dilek Cetindamar who describes technology management as

‘‘a process, which includes planning, directing, control and coordination of the development and implementation of technological capabilities to shape and accomplish the strategic and operational objectives of an organization’’.


But I wouldn’t use it as a dinner party – unless you don’t want to be invited back…

These are my seven takeaways and lessons learned from the story of the vaccine development to ways to improve our management of technology.

Feel free to translate them into your next conversation where you are.

ONE: Think ahead to get ahead.

This is a cluster of things about preparation in skills, thinking long term and spotting trends and drivers. It is also about being part of the right networks and formulating valuable connections.

For Sarah Gilbert, positioning herself at a world-leading university was no accident. She prepared herself first as a biological scientist and honed her skills from an early age. The question drives her, What would happen when Disease X comes along?

She didn’t have to wait long. In January 2020 confirmation came from China about a new virus with the publication of the Disease X genetic code.

Lesson: Thinking longer term both form skills and capabilities and setting up listening posts and foresight initiatives that give a window to potential futures. Also, building your roadmaps and plans to prepare the organisation for the future, both threats and opportunities.


TWO: Think “start-up” and Business

In the early days, the effort was bootstrapped – using money from different pots to fund first efforts, including funding for international development impact.

We do this all the time when we have a new idea, don’t we?

But it strikes me how much like an early-stage venture the team was while they looked to build the Minimum Viable Product, generate market Traction and seek investor funding. This story exemplifies the speed and agility that small teams can enjoy. Bringing Astra Zeneca on board brought a large-scale corporate advantage.

Lesson: Start small with the end in mind while developing and confirming your value proposition.  And be continually prepared to Go Large for when the opportunity comes; luck favours those prepared!


THREE: To be fast, build your Platform (so you can build it in a weekend)

The conventional, linear and slow approach of waiting for a health emergency and then researching a vaccine is no longer fit for purpose.

Catherine had worked for several years building the basic elements of a vaccine for Disease X. She describes it as Plug and Play, by using the chimpanzee adenovirus as a reciprocal for Disease X genetic code resequenced to provide the anti-viral response.

This is a Technology Platform but also includes the manufacturing, testing and distribution needed. The collection of science, engineering, processes, and knowledge to use as a springboard when the need arises.

Critically for the SARS-CoV-2 emergency, the technology had been demonstrated with the Ebola and MERS outbreaks.

Lesson: A Technology Platform is an accelerator. What platforms can you assemble in reasonable anticipation of your future shock? Do you have the right partners? The business advantage is speed and future costs saved.


FOUR: Lead it!

What of the role of leadership and of leading vital in high-performance innovation? For the Oxford team, organising the key tasks with Catherine taking the role of the CTO, writing grants for funding ahead of the call and organising the wider team.

Sarah, with her business brain, the role of the COO, working to set up the first manufacturing facilities to, in her words, “use science as a tool at scale.” The different personalities of the development team worked well.

And of course, getting the resources in money as a key role and the horsepower of a large established pharmaceutical company gave runway to launching at scale in a year.

Lesson: Set up the innovation governance to play to individual strengths. Plug gaps with competent and motivated partners.


FIVE: Crash the programme!

To the public, how could a vaccine come from nowhere to roll out in a year?

The first three lessons provide some of the answers.

But the final reason is, well, they Crashed the Programme.

The linear sequential new product development, to using parallel management and Agile Sprint techniques to, as project managers call it, “Crash the programme” by taking out all the holds, delays, and waiting times and doing the same activities but in parallel.

The concept of parallel management emerged from the Mitsubishi shipyards to slash shipbuilding time and Ford to cut new car launches from 10 years to three.

For the Oxford vaccine, this meant taking out wait time from test results and convening approval meetings, not in the scheduled two months, but this weekend in a special session. The same safety levels had to be applied, but the time saved was immense.

Consequently, the vaccine was the most tested in the history of vaccines, by a mile.

Lesson: Prepare well and run faster in your innovation projects. Consider rebuilding your processes and approaches to NPD to carve out dead time. Speed gets you there faster and pays back development budgets far faster than linear project working.


SIX: Risk not Risky

The developers of the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine are at pains to point out that the vaccine is safe for all the reseason set out in the book.  They do so in an empathetic but direct way knowing that the average member of the general public is quite poor when understanding and calculating risk.

Catherine and Sarah put the development as one of “taking great care and with due haste.” This means, that reasonable judgement was used to speed the programme. The thing that was at risk was never the safety of the vaccine and patients, but of potential to waste budget and rework if the vaccine did not pass the test.

Lesson: Taking reasonable risks with our new products and processes can make good business sense.  But it needs a solid understanding of what those risks are, their consequence and mitigation. When I developed a new process for new billion-dollar energy investment, I was able to shave  30% off development time and be more confident about the product quality.


SEVEN: Communicate it!

“The media will do science better when scientists start doing media better.”

For me, the more exciting communication story is the need to plainly explain and tell your mission to a wider audience.  The motivation for their book was to dispel misinformation about the vaccine, point by point – tackling it head-on; speaking to the lady in the ice cream queue.

Lesson: Normally, communication circles for our innovations can be quite small in a company context for a regular new product.

But increasingly the larger the innovation, the wider the public interest.

Technologists I think are becoming better at communicating their work. And we need to, the stakes are high.

So, take a moment to reflect on Catherine and Sarah’s story.

Think about how you manage your technology and innovation where you are and how you could make a step change for speed and effectiveness (and a bit more glory!)


Finally, I close with the following taken from this remarkable story by Sarah:

Within less than a year, together we had designed, made, tested, manufactured at scale and started to distribute a vaccine that was very safe, that was highly effective, and that would be available around the world in huge quantities at low cost. Together we had made a vaccine for the world.


If you are interested in innovation results improvement, read my article series on Your Roadmap to Technology and Innovation Mastery (link) or just drop me a line to discuss how you could take the first step to improvement.



Vaxxers: The inside story of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and the race against the virus, Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green (2021), Hodder and Stroughton.

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Rob Munro delivers strategic innovation services to companies, universities and government agencies giving business and innovation leaders the practices, tools and confidence to achieve best-in-class innovation results. Please contact me to discuss ways to bring greater effectiveness to your innovation processes.

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